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The Gothic Cathedral


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Dr Zoe Opacic
  • Assessment: a 1000-word research commentary (20%) and 3500-word essay (80%)

Module description

In this module we take a diverse look at one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of Western architecture. Since its creation in France in the middle of the twelfth and until the end of the fifteenth century, the great church has dominated - physically, spiritually and often politically - medieval European landscape. We will consider the extraordinary technical advances which accompanied (and made possible) the construction of cathedrals. We will also trace their development both north and south of the Alps, from the first fully fledged manifestation of Gothic - the Abbey of St Denis - to the (arguably) last great medieval cathedral, that of Milan.

The approach will not, however, be narrowly stylistic; we will consider sculpture and stained glass as integral parts of cathedral design and iconography. The relationship between architecture, liturgy and cult will also form an important part of discussion, as well as the formative influence of architects and patrons.

Finally, we will observe the cathedrals as complex institutions with competing priorities - monastic, secular and political. An essential part of the module throughout will be an assessment of the way in which the cathedrals have been studied, and whether their justifiable hold on our imagination may have, paradoxically, distorted our view of Gothic architecture.

Indicative syllabus

  • Introduction: material and spiritual cathedral
  • St Denis, Paris and Benedictine patronage
  • Chartres Cathedral and high Gothic architecture in France
  • Portals and their sculpture: Reims, Amiens and Strasbourg
  • Architectural practice: drawings, geometry and statics
  • Canterbury Cathedral and St Thomas’ Becket’s cult
  • Westminster Abbey: Royal and Benedictine patronage
  • The decorated style of the West Country: Wells, Bristol and Exeter
  • The arrival of the perpendicular: Gloucester, Canterbury and Winchester
  • The end of the Gothic cathedral: Prague and Milan